This lecture is part of the Divine Disorder Conference held February 24-26, 2015.
The Sacred Chaos of Preserving the Artist and/or the Art: The Wonderfully Strange Case of Howard Finster and his Paradise Garden by Norman Girardot
Norman Girardot: I wanted to say two quick things as a preface for this that came out of the wonderful and quite inspirational thoughts we heard for the past two days. I am not a preservationist so I’ll mention some of that in a minute what I am.
I wanted to say there are couples of things. One is the issue here in many ways that seemed everybody finally could agree on this, that has to deal with telling the story, that provides a supply of evidence, which did come up, but I don’t know how we all understand it.
Telling the story in the case, not all but many of these kinds of artists, that is the artist that do environments or create alternative worlds, they’re visionaries. The point being is that if you are going to tell the story you have to start by taking the idea of visionary experience seriously. That it is a real phenomenon that has its own set of meanings. If you are to contend with them and understand the artist and the environment, you better take that seriously.
Here we go. Then try to force yourself to read this efficiently, but not too quickly and it just becomes a part of a ritualistic exercise in comprehension. First let me thank Jason Church and all of the other posts here, Gordon obviously and all of his helpers here at the garden, and all the helpers with the national association. I appreciate it greatly.
I also want to mention something else that I’m going to refer to Howard Finster. I wanted to put in a little bit of a plug here. The plug is to the late great departed Gregory Warmack better known as Mr. Imagination.
There are several issues. In fact let’s go through that slide. There are several issues that are worth looking into especially from the perspective of this group preservation and conservation.
Just to make a connection as a matter of fact Mr. Imagination met Howard Finster actually twice. Once in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and once here in Summerville or Pennville, in this case, Georgia.
Anyway that’s for some other time. As I indicated to you I want to make it clear to you what I am not. I am not a conservator. I am not a preservationist. I am not a historian. I am not a museum person or any other kind of professional art person. Not that any of those vocations are in intrinsically evil.
I even have some friends that do those things. What am I? Well my training and inclination of historian of religions or something that’s more antiquated nomenclature, a scholar of comparative religions.
This means that I have a professional interest in the endemic strangeness of the human enterprise, especially as related to its two most conspicuous manifestations of that strangeness, religion and art.
The twin reality is one powerful reason for my special interest in Howard Finster and his profoundly strange, and I mean strange in the most positive sense. What makes us proven human is the strangeness that is inside each and every one of us. We’re just afraid to let it out. That’s the difference between Howard Finster and the rest of us.
Where was I? One powerful reason for my special interest in Howard Finster is his profoundly strange and provocative mash-up of religiosity and the aesthetics, ecstatic vision and artistic creativity as related to his art and life. Indeed my real concern is for the intrinsically intertwined relationship of religion and art. This voluble issue of the relation of our religion. The next slide after this, I’m going to leave that on.
The possibility or profitability from an evolutionary, cognitive, and cultural perspective is that these two activities, that is art and religion, are finally the same thing. You have to let that sink in and think about it a little bit.
That is the way of seeing more deeply into our material existence, a way of seeing divine and sacramental “thingness” of things and making our lives special and meaningful, sacred, sublime, beautiful, strange, funky, and amazing. A way of experiencing the world as symbolic sign is significant. That is a matter for another time. I have one other preliminary observation.
The thematic title of this conference is about outsider art. The preservation of our environments is superbly evocative given the ambiguities associated with the field that has no name, or perhaps really, and this alumnus came up before, too many names.
Let this run past you. You don’t have to try to read every single one. It’s the overall effect. If we see the next one?
If we see the next one?
I’ll pause on that for a while. We all know the litany — folk, popular, intuitive, naïve, vernacular, grassroots, art group, outsider, self-taught, and sometimes visionary. On down to another term that is becoming increasingly popular because it simply capitulates to the divine disorder of this field. This relatively recent catch-as-catch-can label is non-mainstream art.
That is anything outside the parameters of elite, urban, middle class, or official cultural institutions. The next slide.
Low as opposed to high, raw in distinction of cooked, intuitive, not conceptual, straight from the hand, heart and gut, not just from the head, primitive, not civilized, strange, not normal, passion, not conformity, sometimes crude, sometimes amazing, and so it goes.
What I do want to mention is that the expression divine disorder, also necessarily brings up the issue of the primordial chaos of the origins, or beginnings, of everything. Creation myths or visionary cosmologies in religious traditions, and the divine chaos in each idea, that is at the start of any creative path.
Let people make note in this regard, that not all cultures affirm the divine priority or duality of a sacred and pure spiritual order over the pathetic chaos of matter. Rather, as seen especially in Chinese Taoist tradition and in the life and art of some non-mainstream visionaries like medieval alchemists or latter-day outsider evangelical artists like Howard Finster, the real secret of reality is the intrinsic interrelationship of spirit and, quoting Howard Finster, “bad and nasty matter.”
This is the hidden fractal beauty of chaos. This of course, is a fractal image here. A significant secret that is best revealed through the practice of religious, artistic, and mathematical vision. I refer to, the next one, the manna of matter, which is both the discovery and construction. Remember, all experience is mediated through cultures. All meaning that we attribute to what we experience is constructed meaning.
It’s what Finster might call the God-embedded nature of concrete, garbage and flesh. Now we move specifically to Howard Finster and his art, especially his environment known as “Paradise Garden.”
Having known the passionate evangelical preacher, itinerant jack-of-all-trades, and amazing prolific visionary artist Howard Finster for 30-some years, and having spent the last seven years writing a book about this self-styled “stranger from another world.” I believe that I have learned something about the divine chaos that creatively links an extraordinary human being with their process of working and their artistic progeny. Please excuse the telegraphic nature of this presentation.
Here I can only hint at some of the factors that enmesh Finster with his myth and ritual methods of crafted self-definition and artistic production. Here are the primaries, whose extraordinary environment of redeemed junk and cautionary signage from the Bible and from outer space.
Most important is to recognize that Finster, as the backwoods William Blake, or the Andy Warhol of the South, can be called a self-taught contemporary folk artist, or more expansively, an outsider or non-mainstream artist. However, the most important and significant label for him is visionary artist.
By visionary, I mean primarily someone who is a virtuoso of trance states of altered consciousness. Someone who regularly, whether it’s spontaneously or more consciously, travels to other worlds and returns to this planet with signs and messages from the gods, the spirits, and angels, winged creatures, the dead, and the UFOs. We see the next.
Again we don’t have the time to talk about these things, but what I call primordial mode of visionary experience is the figure, tribal prehistoric cultures, the so-called “shem,” lets just be aware of it.
You see the next. This is a quick overview of this. Shamanic imagery from Paleolithic caves.
If we can see the next. Notice that these are winged creatures, like the bird man. The little stick figure is a bird man and that’s a bird staff. The whole issue here is the winged creatures that are the mediators between the heavens and the earth. This is a key element here. Hence the issue — there are a lot of winged beings that are involved.
Next, this is a shaman in flight. Let’s see the next. This is another winged creature. Another visionary, Mr. Imagination wearing his wings. He’s not wearing his bottle cap suit.
We see the next. This, by the way folks, is a very rare image. It’s the only known image of Howard Finster in a trance. Yes, he was a real visionary.
In this way, visionary artists revived, reshaped and recycled the ordinary world. By getting themselves in all us access to other more vibrant alternative realms from the past, the present and the future. From here and outer space too they give new life to what in time is worn out, depleted and dispirited.
These exceptional voyagers to other worlds, who regularly see themselves as only temporary visitors to this world service our ever present need to experience the life affirming and curiously refreshing sights of other worlds.
To help us see that there is amazing other worldly grace to the most mundane things of this world, these other worldly explorers are often exceedingly, sometimes crazily, strange yet oddly familiar.
The CC and Howard Finster, this is the current show in Baltimore. Myths or stories in ritual performances of the human arts, a special symbolic skills used by these voyagers to understand themselves and to make their visions visible, communal and effective.
Myths are those big and powerful stories of visionary experience that help make sense of the transitions, transformations, and entropy of causative, social and individual life.
Myth and ritual, whenever overtly present in a traditional cultural context or a more subterranean way in the modern world, the primary conduit of deep mythology in our culture is essentially cinema for us, and now probably computer games. That’s a whole other issue.
Are the imaginative stories in dramatic arts that give us insight in the hidden patterns of existence, the entangled reality of both seen and unseen dimensions of human life?
Let’s see the next. Myths are the ascetic templates for our individual and collective existence on this earth planet. Grettscholl’s story is here is directly connected with what myth is and what it means to construct your life, for all of us, but some partisan particular do this much more powerful way.
We see the next. I’ll say a word about this in a second.
Ritual performance is directly or more pervertedly is the creative theatrical art making the visionary stories real for the performer, as well as shared and operative for others. These practices are all central in participatory signs.
Don’t change it yet. We all know what this is, the famous Finster reenactment of the pivotal vision when he becomes the artist of sacred art in 1976.
Again, this is a story. Did it really happen? Yes, it really happened. Did it really happen in the sense that he tells the story? Well, to some degree probably, but that is beside the point. The issue is the fact that something happened extraordinarily that changed his life.
This is what I call the finger phase vision. We’ll go into it. You see a face, something you fill with dye, a different cult of God. It’s the face that speaks to him and helps him to paint sacred art.
From that point on he goes into literally in a maniac intensity of visionary experience of where he becomes the artist, the sacred artist.
These practices are all sensual and participatory signs included in this. Well we’re missing one here. the persona of the myths that he self-constructs of himself. If you want to know more about this read my book. The point here is that there are various personae that he adopts as his mask throughout the rest of his life adsn these are some of them.
The next one. That is a story performances artworks, images and words that give meaning and direction, a message and a mission to the storyteller’s life and to our own sojourn on this planet.
Religion in art might be seen there for its interrelated sign systems along an evolutionary highway. Imaginatively communicate, create and re-create human worlds. This is a creative and imaginative skill of art and religion. That’s symbolic and storied sign systems that go back to Paleolithic and shamanistic interaction of religious vision, artistic expression and myth ritual performance and, by the way, technological innovation. The true entrepreneur in that sense has to engage his shamanic abilities.
I put this in because it came up several times, especially with Fred’s talk about the prophet Isaiah, seeing the faces in the wood. This is a phenomenon call pareidolia which Howard Finster was a great craftest. All of us indulge in it and has to do with how we construct the world that we perceive, cognitively and culturally. Finster was a great master of this.
If we see the next. The thing you need to realize if you’re going to understand Finster and what this garden represents is first of all it’s a roadside attraction. It’s a roadside attraction in the grand sense of the conception of the American highway system in the ’40s and ’50s, and the emergence for the first time in American history of the advertising signage, both in the sacred sense and in the more secular sense.
In particular, Rock City, which is right down the road and “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” whether you know it or not, goes back to that period, were clearly influences on Howard Finster’s imagination and what he was doing here in this garden.
My suspicion was Finister’s life story is a remarkable concatenation of words, actions and images, really did point toward the relative similitude of religion and art and the interpenetration of visionary ecstasy and artistic creativity.
There truly seems to be a message in all the handmade signs, one that went beyond any literal, or fundamentalist, evangelical reading of the Bible. You need to realize, yes, he was a Baptist. Yes, he was southern evangelical. He was not a fundamentalist, which one thing that means is he doesn’t interpret the Bible literally. He was a symbolist. That’s very, very important to understand.
As the most iconic Paradise Garden sign said, Finster truly had temporarily overcome the fallen or broken condition of the world, the ritual fall of human kind into the Garden of Eden. He had, after all…That’s a sham thing again.
He had taken the pieces over here. He threw away, put them together by night and day, washed by rain, dried by sun, a million pieces all in one. He was of course a poet as much as he was an artist, and that is probably the most renowned of his poetic refrains.
In the amorphous field self taught, or outsider art, there has been a tendency to focus on the exotic, biographical stories of the artist to the neglect of any serious appreciation of the mythic nature of biography, the ritual process of creation, and the significant or symbolic nature of artistic production.
Moreover, in our history circles there has been an inclination to separate the conceptual intention of the artist from the formal nature and material meaning of the art works. It’s not the amorphous intention that comes, but rather the artist’s mythic vision, and performance, which involve both conceptual, and intuitive elements.
This presentation is the premise of the principle that knowing, remembering — keep in mind that the entomology that wrote remember means literally putting back together again — and preserving the memory and matter of an important artist and their work must always involve careful and contextual attention to the self constructed and evolving life myth of the artist.
The ritual process of making those creative imagining real and material, and the explicit and implicit symbolic, or symbiotic nature of the art work, along with, and this is truth in its importance, I think the others, the response of the audience. That’s what the meaning comes from. It’s a construction that is participatory construction.
In this sense that my interpretive appreciation of Howard Finster necessarily intertwines the mythic and biographical elements associated with Finster’s Appalachian, evangelical tradition, and his other worldly, visionary experience, with the focus of the gradual emergence of his incredibly inventive use of materials and diverse forms of artistic creation.
Let me now recall just a bit if my own story. If we see the next, this is where we are, extension to that virtual building. There you see the virtual sign above the million pieces on the front there. This is roughly 1985. This is when I first met him, walked into this place at about nine o’clock at night, one stormy dark night.
When I was working to finish my book, and especially to understand the early ecstasy, and later agony and decay of Paradise Garden after Finster had left this earth and other planets. This is 2012.
Driving my red car from…Actually the next one too. This is back in the ’80s and late ’90s. I pulled up at the small peanut butter sandwich house, which is now the office for the new Paradise Garden Foundation — we’re now talking 2012 — and I was greeted by, next, Jordan Poole, the late, young executive director of the foundation.
Poole had clearly enjoyed his work in the garden, and seemed to delight in talking about philosophical and technical aspects of preservation theory. Despite his degree from the hyper sophisticated Savannah College of Art and Design, and his work on George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Poole was not an outsider to Finster then.
He had grown up in Summerville, and clearly relished this opportunity to return home, and to do something creative with the life that he had made Finster legacy, and the region.
After filling me in on the recent grants the foundation had won to preserve and refurbish the garden, Poole was eager to show me some of the results of that work, and I’m going to skip some. Let’s look at the slides here.
This is actually a drawing that Jordan did when they started to work on the refurbishment. It’s not up to date, in terms of things we’re going to see in a few minutes, but you get a general sense where we are here. You see the World’s Folk Art Church, and so called Rolling Chair Ramp, and then you move back to the section up there in the corner, which was where the original mosaics and so forth were done.
However, in a somewhat…actually let’s finish these slides to just give you a sense of this. This is when they started to repair the mosaics. I don’t know if it’s exactly accurate to say that, but some say, “Oh, they’re bleaching the mosaics.” We’ll see in a second that it got some people quite exorcized.
If we see the next, this is where you see the glory of what starts to unfold as they did the hard work of recovering of the environment from the earth, the forces of nature. The water ways, and the vegetation, one of the keys to understanding Paradise Garden.
If we see the next. This is the famous mirror house. Talk about having a true trance experience, you go into the mirror house, and close your eyes, and then open them wide and try to count your breath in a Buddhist sense, you will go into a trance.
If you see the next, this is the Rolling Chair gallery, which took a lot to stabilize in terms of this is all marshy land and swamp land. It’s all sinking into the earth. If we see the next, this is inside the Rolling Chair Gallery.
What’s one of the great themes here? Both the World’s Folk Art Church, and the Rolling Chair Gallery were intended to be the places where the rest of us, who aren’t shamans, who aren’t visionaries, can let our strangeness, our little bit of strangeness out into the world, and present our work to the world. Howard wanted you to bring art work and put it in these places.
If we see the next, now this is something…I won’t go into this. This is something I did. I was inspired back in the ’80s by Keith Carradine. As the story goes, I was inspired by the Lehigh Memorial. Go to the next. This of course is the World’s Folk Art Church in its decrepitude. That’s something that is now being addressed here.
Let me see what the next one is please, Jason. Just leave that up for a second. The lopsided, decaying, multi-tiered World’s Folk Art Church still required attention, and this work is now underway. All of these efforts seemed promising, but as I quickly learned, there were those who were skeptical about the ideology and methodology of those who were undertaking the new restoration effort.
Superficially, the issue was whether Finster’s intentions for the garden were really being preserved. Was the religious, evangelical purity of the garden being maintained? Was the Paradise Garden a religious theme park of fundamentalist, evangelical beliefs and values?
To get picky about it, should the Paradise Garden Foundation be bleaching embedded concrete mosaics, which were some of Finster’s first art works in the garden.
The new Paradise Garden Foundation was largely made up of local people who saw the garden not only as an important artistic site honoring Howard Finster, and his ecumenical vision of religion and art. Also in the spirit of the World’s Folk Art Church and the Rolling Chair Gallery, a place for educating all of us — this is a theme in Howard’s work — the hidden men and women, our hidden abilities as creators and artists.
Finally getting the importance of community involvement, the foundation saw their mission in preservation as creatively contributing to the economic development of one of the poorest regions in Georgia.
Sadly, this situation has spawned a rancorous dispute — and boy, we could tell you stories, but we will not tell you stories — between the Paradise Garden Foundation, and another group claiming to represent Finster’s real intentions.
As Finster might say, “The snakes have been let loose in the garden, and here it is well to remember my admonition about any any certainty about knowing an artist’s, creator’s real or true intentions.” We’re almost done here. I’m going to end in a few minutes.
The truth is that at that highlight moment in 2012 and 2013 feelings about the garden were torn between the hope for renewal, and the darker emotions associated with broken promises, natural decay, selfish interests, and human conflict.
As the astute Finster collector, Thomas Scanlin, has said, “The problem of bringing the garden back to life and truly honoring Howard Finster is not a matter of simply stabilizing, archiving, and preserving the property in its dispirited condition. The issue is how to bring the garden truly back to some semblance of its previous vibrant life, so that the water, the sap, the blood, and the creative spirit can flow again.”
The question becomes one of how, interpretively, to make use of Finster’s visionary artistic template, what he called God’s blueprint, which always necessarily allows for some creative chaos, and new, unexpected growth.
How then, while striking a balance between preservation of the past, and rehabilitation and relation to the future, does one regenerate some of the original, lushness — Can we see the next? — of Finster’s garden as an environmental sign, and organic symbol of the larger possibilities for the human community?
Now, I have another page. I’m not going to read another page because I want to get you guys out into the garden. You all can email my synopsis of the whole thing.
Let me just read the last part here. “The encouraging news is so far, and in keeping in mind the ongoing difficulty of the task, the current efforts of the new Paradise Garden Foundation are successfully combining interpretive visionary remembrance, creative storytelling, educational substance, and meaningful community involvement. Hallelujah. Howard would be pleased, and the Duck Woman of Orpliss thanks you.”
This is from Jonathan Williams, the founder of the Jargon Society, a poet who recently died. A wonderful, funky, strange poet and he really got Howard. This image is the image that becomes the basis for his later series called the series. It’s one of the strangest things.
I had a really spooky experience in New York City just a few weeks ago at Downtown Art Fair. I walked down the corridor and at the end of the corridor in one of the booths there it was — the Duck Woman of Orpliss was there. I ended my book with the Duck Woman of Orpliss, so it was very spooky.
We thank the Duck Woman of Orpliss. Let me see the last slide. Please note that…I’m not going to explain that. This is my own aberrant sense of humor.
What we want to draw your attention to is the handout that says the fact that we’re preserving the divine disorder of the Finsterian vision, which hopefully you got copies of that, or not. Are they there? I just made those up, so I don’t pretend in any way that they’re definitive.
I would love to see your contributions, or emendations, or either shouts of rage, or shouts of joy, whatever it might be because I do think there’s something it. What am I telling the rest of you, especially you conservationist, and you preservationist people? If you want to do it right, you better hire a comparative religion scholar.
Enough, you need to go out.
Having known the passionate evangelical preacher, itinerant jack-of-all-trades, and amazingly prolific visionary artist Howard Finster (1915/16-2001) for thirty some years, and having spent the last seven years writing a book about the religion and art of this self-styled “stranger from another world,” I believe that I have learned something about the sacred myth and ritual chaos that creatively links an extraordinary human being with their process of working and their artistic progeny.
The Reverend Howard Finster (1916–2001) was called the “backwoods William Blake” and the “Andy Warhol of the South,” and he is considered the godfather of contemporary American folk outsider, and visionary art. With only a sixth grade education, Finster began preaching as a teenager in the South in the 1930s. But it was not until he received a revelation from God at the age of 60 that he began to make sacred art. A modern-day Noah who saw his art as a religious crusade to save the world before it was too late, Finster worked around the clock, often subsisting on a diet of peanut butter and instant coffee. He spent the last years of his life feverishly creating his incredible environmental artwork called Paradise Garden and what would ultimately number almost 50,000 works of “bad and nasty art.” This was visionary work that obsessively combined images and text and featured apocalyptic biblical imagery, flying saucers from outer space, and popular cultural icons such as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Henry Ford, Mona Lisa, and George Washington. In the 1980s and 90s, he developed cult celebrity status, and he appeared in the Venice Biennale and on the Tonight Show. His work graced the album covers of bands such as R.E.M. and Talking Heads.
In the often amorphous field of self-taught or outsider art, there has been a tendency to focus on the exotic biographical stories of the artists to the neglect of any serious appreciation or understanding of the artistic production whether discrete art objects or larger environmental works. Moreover in art history circles, there has been an inclination to separate the explicit or implicit “intention” of the artist from the formal nature and material meaning of the artworks. My presentation is premised on the principle that knowing, remembering (in the sense of re-membering or putting back together), and preserving the memory (and matter) of an important artist and their work must always involve careful and contextual attention to the life and self-constructed myth of the artist, the ritual process of making those creative imaginings real and material, and the resulting response of an audience. It is in this sense that my interpretive appreciation of Howard Finster necessarily intertwines biographical elements associated with Finster’s Appalachian evangelicalism and otherworldly visionary experience with a focus on the incredible outpouring of almost 50,000 art works, the most significant of which is his multi-acre Paradise Garden in the northwest corner of Georgia. All human experience of the natural and cultural worlds is interpretive. To preserve and continue the story and productions of an exceptional artist for later generations involves, then, interpretive acts which creatively renew and give regenerative life to the stories and constructions originally produced by the artist. Stories about stories. In this presentation I will tell Finster’s personal and universal story as a visionary artist that directly relates to, and informs, the story of the on-going material re-creation of Paradise Garden.
Norman Girardot is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Religion Studies Department at Lehigh University, USA. Trained in the comparative history of religions at the University of Chicago (MA, Ph.D.), he taught at Notre Dame University and Oberlin College before coming to Lehigh in 1980. His research areas are broadly comparative but especially involve Chinese religious tradition, particularly Daoism; the intellectual history of the study of China/Chinese religions and the rise of the discipline known as “comparative religion;” translation theory and the problems of cross-cultural understanding; theory in the study of religion; popular religious movements; and the relation of religion and outsider/vernacular/ visionary art. His books on Daoism and Ecology (2001) and The Victorian Translation of China: James Legge’s Oriental Pilgrimage (2002) have now appeared in Chinese translation (2008 and 2011); and his work on early Daoist tradition (Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism 1983, 1989, 2012) will soon be published in Chinese translation. In addition to his ongoing interest and teaching related to Chinese religion and Daoist studies, his current research and writing largely concerns American and European outsider artistic and visionary tradition. From 2009 to 2013, he was a primary investigator for a Henry Luce Foundation grant that led to interdisciplinary student programs in China and the construction of an ancient Chinese woven timber bridge on the Lehigh campus and a traditional Chinese pavilion in the city of Bethlehem. His interpretive book about the incredibly prolific Southern Baptist preacher, Christian shaman, maverick outsider, quasi-Western Daoist, and visionary artist, Howard Finster (1916-2001), entitled Envisioning Howard Finster: The Religion and Art of a Stranger from Another World, is forthcoming with the University of California Press.